Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Indian villagers trapped between rebels and police

By Amy Kazmin in Kanker, India

Published: February 17 2010 02:00 | Last updated: February 17 2010 02:00

Nestled against the forest, the bucolic villages of India's Kanker district are tidy clusters of mud-walled homes whose inhabitants eke out an existence by cultivating small patches of land and going to the forest to collect the tendu leaves used for traditional Indian cigarettes, known as bidis .

Yet behind the tranquil facade, Kanker's villagers are living in the grip of fear, caught between the radical leftwing Naxal guerrilla movement and government forces intent on quashing a spreading rebellion that has become one of India's main security -concerns.

That dilemma is being echoed in rural areas across vast swathes of India, where New Delhi has begun more frequently to use para-military force to challenge the hold of the Naxalites over far-flung corners long neglected by the state machinery.

The government launched Operation Green Hunt last year, sending battle-hardened paramilitary forces from Kashmir to bolster beleaguered and poorly trained police forces trying to dislodge the guerrillas.

On Monday, Maoists proved what tough adversaries they are when they attacked a paramilitary police camp in West Bengal, killing about 24 soldiers and injuring seven others. Bhupinder Singh, West Bengal's police chief, blamed residents for failing to warn security forces of the attack.

"As security operations expand across several affected states, we will find more and more villagers caught between security forces and the Naxals," says Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch. "In this kind of situation, there is never a middle. People are forced to take sides."

The Naxalites, named after Naxalbari, the village in West Bengal where their movement was born in 1967, have established a firm hold over Kanker district and the thickly forested, sparsely populated swathe of mineral-rich Chhattisgarh state in which it lies.

They have established groups of supportive villagers, called sanghams , to serve as their eyes and ears. At covert public meetings, the rebels, from the Communist Party of India (Maoist), denounce New Delhi's policies - especially plans to expand mining - and warn villagers against joining the police forces.

Each month, the Maoists, who have carried out detailed socio-economic surveys of the villages and their inhabitants, demand monthly payments and food from each family, requiring those with public sector jobs, such as school teachers, to give the most. Some teachers pay as much as Rs1,500 ($32, €24, £21).

Beatings of dissenters, rumoured killings of suspected police informers and fear that children will be forcibly taken to be Maoist cadres help keep Kanker's villagers compliant. Yet there is little doubt that the rebels' denunciations of New Delhi and its policies also resonate with many.

"Some of what they said is right," says one villager, who has attended two recent meetings, in which the Maoists attacked the Steel Authority of India Ltd and its huge steel plant in Chhattisgarh for "cheating" local people and criticised plans to expand mining in the state. "We should not sell our iron ore to other countries."

As the Maoists woo villages with their potent messages, police are stepping up their own surveillance of Kanker, visiting villages more often and offering to solve local problems. Yet rather than instilling confidence in state power, the visits merely create anxiety.

"We do not allow the police to sit in anyone's house," says one villager, who, like others interviewed, so feared retribution from one side or the other that he requested that neither he nor his village be identified. "We make them sit in the square, so nobody can be blamed for being a police informer."

The Naxalites have expanded their footprint across remote, inaccessible parts of rural India over several decades, taking advantage of local grievances and the vacuum left by a detached state architecture. The so-called "Red Corridor" now stretches from West Bengal - the site of Monday's assault - across Jharkhand, Bihar, mineral-rich Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Maharashtra. Many of the guerrilla movement's university-educated leaders come from Andhra Pradesh, which was a Maoist stronghold in the 1990s before an aggressive state offensive pushed them out.

Today, no place is as crucial to the guerrillas as their so-called liberated area in the forests of Chhattisgarh, where autho-rities say leftist cadres from all over India are trained in hidden jungle bases.

The first rebels to enter the region's forests in the 1980s won popular support by protecting residents against aggressive government forest guards and helping them secure better prices for the tendu leaves they sold to the bidi industry. Many villagers later joined - or were forced to join - the movement as full-time cadres.

But over the years, unhappy at the Maoists' efforts to halt the traditional animist spiritual practices of local tribes, and at mounting violence against traditional leaders and other dissenters, many locals have turned sour towards the guerrillas.

Security forces are slowly pushing into Maoist-held areas to battle the rebels, though local human rights groups accuse them of slaughtering innocent civilians then branding them as Naxal rebels.

Security forces deny any intentional wrongdoing. But the allegations have risen all the way to New Delhi and India's Supreme Court, where a group of tribal villagers from Chhattisgarh were brought this week to testify in a case accusing security forces of massacring nine civilians in Gompad village in October.

Standing barefoot outside the courtroom, the illiterate villagers, including one who had been shot in the leg, looked stunned by the roar of Delhi's traffic and the swirl of black-robed lawyers. Inside, lawyers bickered over who should translate the accounts of the villagers, who speak only a tribal language called Gondi.

Himanshu Kumar, the activist behind the case, argued that the interpreter offered by the government was too close to the police. Mr Kumar, who speaks Gondi, was proposed, but state lawyers called him a Maoist sympathiser.

When the villagers were finally asked about the events of October, they said they had no idea who killed their relatives.

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